Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamist Ra’am Party and a supporter of Israel’s governing coalition government, is a realist. Judging by two of his most recent comments, he has a sound appreciation of the political environment in Israel.
Several days ago, at a conference in Tel Aviv sponsored by the Hebrew-language Globes newsmagazine, Abbas urged the Israeli Arab minority to accept Israel as a Jewish state.
“Israel was born as a Jewish state,” he said. “And that was the decision of the Jewish people, to establish a Jewish state. The question is not, ‘What is the identity of the state?’ That’s how the state was born, and so it will remain.”
Abbas delivered an identical message to the Arab media several weeks earlier. “Israel is a Jewish state,” he said. “That is its identity, its essence.” In a reference to Israeli Jews, he added, “From their perspective, if its Jewish nature is taken away, the state will have vanished as well …”
Warning Israeli Arabs to avoid what he described as “lost battles,” he called on them to focus on what really matters. “The essential question for us as Arabs is what our status is in this country,” he said. “Period.”
Whether his remarks will be seen as a wakeup call is debatable. But they most certainly represent a fresh and pragmatic perspective as to how Israeli Arabs should relate to Israel.
Unlike some of his Arab colleagues in the Knesset, Abbas believes the Arab community, representing 21 percent of Israel’s population, has more to gain than lose if it works within the system to advance policies that will benefit Israeli Arabs concretely.
It was on this basis that Abbas bolted from the Joint List, an amalgamation of Israel Arab parties, and declared his independence politically. He then let it be known that the Ra’am Party, with four parliamentary seats, would be open to working pragmatically with Jewish parties.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the then prime minister, courted Abbas assiduously. He was acutely aware that his support could mean the difference between survival and oblivion. Without Abbas’ Knesset seats, he would be unable to form a new government led by his right-wing Likud Party.
Netanyahu’s strategy crumbled when Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party announced he would not endorse him if he included Abbas in his government.
No such problem confronted Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid Party when he was tasked to form a government following Netanyahu’s failure. In exchange for his support, Lapid promised Abbas a range of sweeping concessions. As coalition talks proceeded, Lapid offered Naftali Bennett — the leader of the right-wing Yamina Party — the prime ministership until August 2023, at which point he is due to replace him.
Last June, Bennett succeeded Netanyahu as prime minister, forming a politically diverse government composed of parties from the right, center and left and backed by Abbas.
To his credit, Bennett supported Lapid’s multi-billion dollar plan to improve conditions in the Arab community. Valuing realism over ideology, Abbas can take much of the credit for these advances on the ground.
Some of Abbas’ former colleagues, notably Ayman Odeh of the Joint List, denounced Abbas’ policy as a betrayal, a sellout of the Palestinian national cause.
Odeh and his supporters should not be so hasty in condemning Abbas. He has done more for his people in advancing bread-and-butter issues of vital importance than any other Arab politician, past and present.
There are still many battles to be fought by Israeli Arabs in their quest to achieve full equality with Jews. But in the meantime, Abbas is promoting a sensible agenda that clearly benefits Israeli Arabs. And his refreshing recognition of Israel as a Jewish state with an Arab minority is further proof of his realistic approach to politics.